Food for Thought: Merrill churches provide free lunches for children and families through the summerSubmitted: 06/29/2016

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MERRILL - When you need to feed three children on a limited budget, Stanges Park becomes something of a summer oasis for Claire Barker.

"Two to three times a week we're here," Barker said.

The Merrill mother brought her kids to the daily free lunch program at the park Wednesday morning. For Barker, the healthy meals make a big difference in her life.

"The generosity, the park, we go to the library, so it's all in a convenient area," Barker said. "And, it's all healthy food."

The task of making those healthy sandwiches, fruit, and veggies on Wednesday belonged to Cindy Savone and members of the Christ United Methodist Church.

"We're all on the same team," Savone said. "We want to do this for the community."

Savone's church started the free summer lunch program once-a-week four years ago. Since then, four other churches -- including St. John Lutheran, St. Stephens United Church of Christ, Trinity Lutheran, and Our Savior's Lutheran -- stepped up to make lunch Monday through Friday, June through August.

"We give some of these young families a break," Savone said. "Sometimes it's difficult. If we can give them a free lunch, they can put that money in their budget elsewhere."

First and foremost, the program is about providing a free, healthy lunch to families. But sometimes it goes beyond just the food. In fact, some days there's an educational aspect mixed in. Wednesday, Merrill firefighters showed off tools like their thermal imaging camera, fire trucks, and ambulances.

"[This is a] more of a laid back atmosphere [than a school setting[ where the kids can grab a sandwich, firefighters grab a sandwich with them and sit down and talk about fire prevention tips," Battalion Chief Mike Drury said.

The meals and volunteers all rely on donations. That allows the churches to feed upwards of 100 people each day.

"It's nice to know that people out there will help the kids with lunch because it can go a long way," Barker said. "When you have multiple children it goes a long way."

Providing a little food for families' stomachs and food for thought all summer long.

Most donations range from $5 to $25, but Church Mutual Insurance stepped up big in 2016. The company held a "Blue Jean Day" fundraiser. Thanks to that, it donated about $1,300 for the free lunch program.

Stanges Park is located at 209 E. 3rd Street in Merrill. Free lunch runs Monday through Friday 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. rain or shine.

Story By: Lane Kimble

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